Michael Palin gets a Brazilian …

… shaman to predict whether England will win the 2014 Football World Cup. He communes with the spirits and says “No”.

This was one of the fascinating travel stories Michael shared with a packed Christ’s College auditorium on Friday 2 November. The fab team from The Press Christchurch Writers Festival brought us a literary event to savour as this former Python was quite the storyteller.

Brazil was his subject. His latest book and tv series is an exploration of that vast country. It will host the next  World Cup in football, and in 2016 the Olympics, and has just surpassed the United Kingdom as an economic power – so is very much a subject in people’s minds.

Some of the topics covered in his whistle-stop talk:

  • The influence of Africa, especially in the north-east. 6-7 million slaves from Africa worked the plantations.
  • Salvador is home to animist religion Candomblé.
  • Capoeira, that highly watchable combo of dance and martial art, is being used by some as an incentive to get kids in the favelas (shanty towns) to learn.
  • We learned a lot about favelas, and the Pacifying Police Unit which is attempting to reclaim control from drug dealers and militia.
  • The Amazon – more than 20% of the world’s freshwater supply is located in the Amazon basin.
  • Fordlandia  – Henry Ford’s jungle city located by the rubber plantations (if you want to have a look, Al Jazeera went there in 2009).
  • How to catch a piranha (Michael did it, and then ate it – in sashimi form.
  • The Iguacu Falls (he considers them the most spectacular in the world).

Michael Palin crowd

There were so many good stories packed into our evening with Mr Palin. He was guest star on the Valley of the Stones, favela radio station. The DJ asked him “What do you think about gay marriage?”. The follow up question: “And abortion?” Michael stumbled with an answer, then the DJ said “Very good! Now, Elvis Presley”.  He was invited to take part in a Gay Pride March in Rio de Janiero, appearing on a bus with transsexuals, transvestites (including a guy called Marjorie).

Dada, a cook in her 50s,  in Salvador is a famous cook. He had a conversation with her (his translator concealed in a serving hatch):

Dada: Every time I make a meal it is like having an orgasm.

(to which Michael replies): That must be tiring.

Dada: Tiring? No, making love is more tiring.

Michael went to the Amazon, walking an hour from an airstrip to a village where everyone lives communally. He noted that tribes are keen to get hold of cameras and editing equipment. They want to “show their history, define their own culture”.  An anthropologist showed the tribe photos from an earlier visit in the 1920s, and the Shamen noted “no-one took their names”.

His summation of the Brazilian people is that they are “immensely tolerant”, show “no self-consciousness or embarrassment” and that they’re “happy being Brazilian”.

There was a brief time for questions from the floor. Someone asked what they should see if they go to Brazil. He suggested Salvador,  the Iguacu Falls, the east coast and the rainforest. Another person asked where he wouldn’t want to return too. He nominated the gulag  camps in north-eastern Russia where workers had to dig for uranium, and the road they made is built on workers’ bones.

Audience members also unearthed the fact his wife quite likes him going away, that he is positive about the future of the rainforest as Brazilians are learning more and becoming more engaged, and that he makes travel shows with a “light footprint” – only six people are in his travelling party.

We (and a big bunch of Christchurchians) queued up to get a book signed and meet the man himself. He’s a top bloke and not at all stuck up.

Michael Palin

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